BEIJING — China established a policy for increasing university enrollment in 1999 in order to boost the economy and spur employment. By 2002, some 1.45 million students were graduating each year in China. This June, 7.65 million got their college diploma, yet another record high.
The growing number of college-educated people is good news for the country. But for the individual young graduates, bad news lurks ahead.
Every year over the past few years, people have called it "the hardest year for graduates to find a job." Yet, the stunning truth is that there is no such thing as "the hardest." It just gets harder and harder — and the situation has shattered the self-esteem of young people.
In addition to college graduates, if you count technical and high school pass-outs, China has an army of 15 million young people looking for jobs, according to data from China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.
But there's a slump in the Chinese economy. Many companies are recruiting less so there are fewer jobs available to graduates. Movies portray a romantic image of graduation. In reality, large numbers of students gloomily trudge between job fairs and interviews in the months leading up to graduation. Finding employment has grown harder and colleges are increasingly becoming job training camps.
Why is this?
The number of Chinese college graduates has risen faster than the ability of the Chinese economy to absorb them. Since the end of the 1990s, the government stopped taking responsibility for allocating jobs. Jobs in the information economy are fewer and fewer. As a developing country, China has both an information technology industry as well as traditional manufacturing. Blue-collar jobs with lower incomes and poorer work environments do not attract college graduates. But the jobs provided by modern financial and services industries, including internet businesses that have been in the limelight in recent years, are simply not enough to absorb the growing number of young job hunters.
Chinese students grow up with the philosophy that, "The worth of other pursuits is small, only study can excel them all." This kind of thinking, promoted by schools and parents, has convinced students that the only way to succeed in life is to study. Many Chinese parents believe that entering university is a passport to climb up in life.
The majority of Chinese graduates want a job in large cities or the coastal areas and prefer government work or employment in large public and private enterprises. Parents, who have made a huge investment in their offspring from kindergarten to college, also expect a return on investment. In these cases, both parents and children are disappointed when faced with unemployment.
China's policy reflects a disconnect between the real economy and education. The majority of Chinese universities offer curriculum that is oriented toward elites and can be out of touch with real market needs. The education model churns out batches of young adults who are highly educated but lack practical skills and experience. Even if the graduates get employed, their new workplaces still have to spend a lot of money to train them.
China's young adults were born at the best of times but are dealing with the worst of times. It will take a lot of effort for them to build up their own capability and develop real competitive advantage at the workplace.